Published in In Theater
Trained as an actor, acclaimed as a director, Sheldon Epps has been able to maintain his balance in straddling the worlds of theater and television.
In 1983, he conceived ”Blues in the Night” (which starred Leslie Uggams on Broadway, Della Reese and Eartha Kitt on tour). The revue was nominated for a Best Musical Tony and two Olivier Awards. In1996, Epps created the Duke Ellington musical, “Play On!” which garnered three Tony nominations and four Jefferson Awards. Though the show had a short New York run, it broke box office records in San Diego, Chicago and Seattle.
For television, Epps has directed episodes of ‘Frasier,” “Encore! Encore!”, “Sister, Sister,” “The Smart Guy” and “Evening Shade.” He’s been working on a screenplay about legendary blues singer, Alberta Hunter.
He attributes at least some of his successful cross-medium balancing act to his move to the Pasadena Playhouse, where he now serves as artistic director. Before that, he was Associate Artistic Director at the Old Globe in San Diego.
Pat Launer, San Diego correspondent for In Theater, spoke to Mr. Epps about his recent move and his future plans.
PBL: Why did you leave the Old Globe for the Pasadena Playhouse?
SE: My position at the Globe was created and funded by the TCG/Pew grant. After the first two years, it was extended for another two, but couldn’t be extended any further. The Globe offered to extend the theater’s budget to continue my position. But the Pasadena Playhouse started wooing me for the artistic director position that hadn’t been in existence for some time.
PBL: If you were looking for a new home base, why Pasadena?
SE: This theater has an incredibly rich history. It’s one of the oldest theaters in America — 82 years old. Physically, it’s one of the most beautiful theaters in the country. It was closed for many years, and was almost torn down. But I thought it had tremendous potential for growth, and was a place where I could make a difference. I thought we could build this into a first-class company.
PBL: And is it?
SE: Well, I’ve only been here officially since September 1997. But I think the perception of the theater as an arts institution has turned around in a very strong direction. It now has a lot of respect from the local and the national theater community. The interest in working here is as good as it gets. The major theaters – ACT, Seattle Rep, Arena Stage – are all talking about co-productions. Major writers are talking about coming here. And Shirley Knight is about to play Lady Bracknell (in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” May 7-June 20). What’s great is that people in L.A. can exercise their passion for the theater, then go home at night.
PBL: What’s the theater’s demographic?
EP: Our subscription audience comes from a huge radius — 330 different zip codes. It’s about 12,000 – not bad, though not what it was at its peak. The subscription trend is downward nationally, for younger audiences particularly. But our single ticket sales are up, especially for new audiences.
PBL: How are you managing that?
SE: By programming. Doing works that have appeal to audiences of color, and younger audiences. Two shows last season did that: “The Real Thing,” which is emotionally a very young play, with issues directly addressed to 40 year olds.
PBL: Is 40 what you’d consider a young audience?
SE: It is in regional theater! The other play was “The Old Settler,” which brought in a black audience…. My being on the staff certainly gives the black community in this area a deserved sense of ownership at this theater.
PBL: Let’s talk about “Play On!” Was the New York experience ugly?
SE: I’ve never had an ugly experience with “Play On!” artistically. The Globe experience [in 1996] was wonderful. Birthing the baby. Going in with the crazy idea of developing it in a truly collaborative way, not only with the creative staff, but with the whole company. In New York, the creative experience was wonderful. Audiences loved the work. The reviews were completely mixed, from ecstatic to negative. I was very happy and proud of the production. What was different was the business aspect. We suffered, trying to compete with bigger organizations with more money.
Eight musicals opened the season we opened, including “Steel Pier,” “The Life” and “Jekyll and Hyde.” We were the first; the others had very high profiles. The interesting thing about the enormously successful Chicago production was that some thought it was very different from the New York production. To tell the truth, it wasn’t that different.
PBL: Well, what about the book [the libretto debut of playwright Cheryl L. West]? That was the major complaint of critics in San Diego and in New York.
SE: The book was sharpened, focused. We cut a scene here, a song there. But the basic story was the same. That’s one of the reasons I don’t feel badly about any of it. The work I’ve done is living proof that a show can have an extraordinary life worldwide even though it’s not a hit in New York. I don’t need to work in New York to be successful. I’m successful right here at the Pasadena Playhouse. In a way, New York is just another resident theater. Another place to put new shows on. Not the only place.
PBL: Could this be a wee bit of sour grapes?
SE: I truly don’t have any sour grapes about the experience. If it had been a huge hit, I would’ve made a lot more money. But I could not be more pleased. It’s a very alive piece of theater. Lots of shows with longer runs in New York have never gotten done again. What’s important for me is this kind of truly long run.
PBL: I understand that Tonya Pinkins, who originated the role of Lady Liv, will be playing it in Pasadena again [July 9-August 22]. I just love the story of her in the San Diego production; she was very pregnant on opening night.
SE: Yes, and shortly thereafter, she played two performances on Saturday, then had her baby on Sunday. The cast had Monday and Tuesday off. I went to the theater on Wednesday, and there she was, putting on her makeup.
PBL: So what’s the future of “Play On!”?
SE: Ours is a co-production with the Arizona Theater Company, which means it will play Tucson and Phoenix in the fall. We’re talking about productions in Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, maybe San Diego again. And we’re exploring an international tour – London, Australia. I’d like to go from city to city with one production.
PBL: And what about your own future? Do you see yourself staying in Pasadena for the long haul? And what would you like to accomplish there?
SE: I certainly could stay here for a long time. My goal is to operate at the level of artistry that compares with any theater in the country, and even internationally. I also have a specific goal for a smaller, second space, for edgier work and new works. I’ll continue to do TV and film work, and freelance directing. This was a good move for me. It’s turned out to be all the things I hoped for. It’s awfully sweet when dreams come true.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.